Ebola Outbreak Stark Reminder to Prevent What’s Preventable

If you’ve been watching the news at all in the past two weeks, then you probably are aware that two Americans contracted the Ebola virus and have been transported to the US for treatment.  And, even though a person cannot become infected with Ebola without coming into contact with bodily fluids of an infected individual, the thought of this virus spreading in the United States has sparked fear across the nation.

Ebola has killed more than 930 people this year globally since March, including countless healthcare workers and Sierra Leone’s leading doctor.  As we watch in horror the gruesome devastation Ebola inflicts on children and adults, our hearts break, and we hope for an Ebola virus vaccine to be developed quickly. Unfortunately, one probably won’t be available until 2015. Why so far away when we need it so desperately?

One reason is the high level of safety standards we have for vaccines here in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for regulating vaccines in the US.  The vaccine licensing process is extraordinarily rigorous –starting from the first step called “investigational new drug application,” through 3-phased clinical trials with thousands of participants and reviews by medical and scientific experts, and then on to inspections of the manufacturing facilities and continual assessments weighing the benefits of the vaccine with any side effects or risks associated with it.

This meticulous sequence takes years, but it matters because the success of immunization programs hinges on a strong safety record for vaccines. It is because of this process that we can say confidently that vaccines are not only effective, but safe for our children as well. In fact, your child has a greater chance of being struck by lightning than having a severe reaction to the measles, mumps and rubella combination vaccine (MMR).

The development of an Ebola virus vaccine will follow the same daunting (but necessary) process as the vaccines our children receive for polio, pertussis and the rest – diseases that also once sparked great fear and concern in the hearts and minds of parents. And in the case of some diseases like measles and influenza, still do.

Measles is still a leading cause of death in small children worldwide. In 2012, roughly 122,000 people died from measles globally. Influenza kills an average of 23,000 people every year in the US alone. While an Ebola virus vaccine is still beyond our reach, we should take comfort in the knowledge that we are now able to protect our children from more devastating diseases than ever before in human history. And because of the rigorous process by which we secure and assess safety, and advances in vaccine technology, the vaccines we have are safer than they’ve ever been.

So as our thoughts and concerns are with those affected by this terrible Ebola outbreak, let’s continue to encourage and educate our friends on the benefits of the life-saving vaccines we do have.  Immunize.  Prevent what’s preventable!

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